The City of Charleston, like many small-to-mid size cities in the last half of the 20th century, faced a difficult problem: it didn’t have enough cash. The problem first reared its head during the 1950s and ’60s when the city experienced a decline in population growth. And then the ’70s arrived, bringing with it the first wave of anti-taxation zealots determined to keep taxes low. Unfortunately, it’s difficult for a civic body to cut services to its citizens, even if there are fewer citizens around to support those services — and fewer taxes to pay for them.
The solution for many towns and cities around the country was to annex nearby communities to increase the tax base. Sometimes these annexations were voluntary. Occasionally, though, they were not, and the courts and legislature made the call, regardless of whatever its future citizens desired.
For Charleston, it was much different. Mt. Pleasant was incorporated more than 150 years ago, cutting off the ability to grow east of the Cooper. Following the lead of the Town of West Ashley in the 1960s, North Charleston incorporated itself in 1972 to avoid becoming part of the City of Charleston, and the islands named for Daniel, James, and John, quickly followed suit. Ironically, the City of Charleston could not even claim Albemarle Point, where the first settlers landed in 1670, as its own.
And so Charleston grew up — not out. In a April 1987 meeting, City Council abolished the half-century old Board of Architectural Review and in its place created the Board of Modernization. The BOM, seen by preservationists as the death knell of the “Charleston charm,” acted quickly to establish guidelines preserving Charleston’s unique history while creating a downtown space that would be modern enough to bring people back into the city.
The results, as we all know, have been astounding. The first acts of the BOM were to rewrite the city’s antiquated building codes, many aimed at preserving Charleston’s church-steeple skyline. In a memorable and heated exchange, one BOM member proclaimed, “What good is a skyline if no one can see it?” while another challenged a preservationist by saying, “The high-rises are coming. If you want, you can get a permit to build your beloved churches on top of the hotels, apartments, and businesses.”
Charleston’s planners realized that change had to happen, and they made it happen. Concessions were made to the Preservation Society, leaving some of the BAR’s rules in place. “We want to build a new Charleston, true,” said one BOM member, “but we don’t want to look like Charlotte or Atlanta.” Largely, that goal has been achieved.
The city’s efforts at modernization haven’t been in vain. Today, the peninsula’s population is not only growing, but booming. While it may not have the same numbers of Columbia or Greenville-Spartanburg, Charleston is not contending with urban sprawl and spreading resources too thin over too great an area.
The City of Charleston boasts a truly impressive skyline, and the reshaping of the peninsula’s building code allowed for vast improvements to the roadways and infrastructure. While other cities in America struggle to cope with congestion in downtown areas, Charleston’s roads are easy to traverse with more than enough space for cars, buses, service vehicles, bicycles, and pedestrians. And there has not been a gas leak, water main break, flood, or serious power outage on the peninsula in more than 20 years.
Ultimately, Charleston’s inability to annex the surrounding areas wasn’t the death knell that many expected. It was the Holy City’s saving grace. One can only shudder to think what Charleston would be like today if its leaders had not followed this bold course.